It all started in 1987. Jerry Richardson and several associates came together and pitched a bid to the NFL to bring an expansion team to the Carolinas. After whittling down the possible expansion sites down to Charlotte, ground was broken on a new stadium in April 1994.
Since their inaugural season in 1995, the Panthers have experienced incredible highs that teams that have been around twice as long can’t put on their resume. They’ve also trudged through the murk of disappointing seasons, bad-luck plays, and poor personnel decisions. While it is easy to focus on the negative when it comes to the team (especially in the wake of a slow start to a year of high expectations), here are ten of the most memorable moments - good and bad.
10. The 2001 Season
It all started with a 93 yard kickoff return. A rookie receiver named Steve Smith took it to the house against the Minnesota Vikings in the first play of the game on September 9, 2001. Nick Goings was the primary rusher, taking over for a stumbling Tim Biakabutuka. 29-year-old rookie Chris Weinke was great in his first NFL start, going 13-for-22 on 223 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception. The Panthers went on to win the game at the Metrodome, 24-13. The press wondered the next day if this was the beginning of a special season for head coach George Seifert and the Panthers.
It would be the last win of the season. Here’s the numbers.
Over the course of what would be an excruciating 1-15 season, the Panthers weren’t blown out consistently – they only lost five of those fifteen games by more than two scores – the disintegration was a result of youth at key positions and a head coach who had lost the confidence of his players. The Panthers would fire Seifert and crew, and John Fox – then a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants – would be brought in.
9. Panthers Draft Steve Smith
Drafted with the 74th pick in the third round of the 2001 draft, Steve Smith was a talented wide receiver out of the University of Utah. Considered a talent with concerns about his height, Smith quickly took advantage of his dual role as a wideout and kick returner, amassing 1,994 all-purpose yards in his rookie campaign. Smith was one of three Panthers from the doomed 2001 season to be given a Pro Bowl nod.
Since then, Smith has become arguably the greatest Panther of all time, consistently leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns (despite never playing with an elite talent at quarterback) while playing with an unrivaled fury. At 34, Smith shows no signs of slowing down and still remains the Panthers greatest playmaker.
8. Panthers Defeat Defending Super Bowl Champs 49ers in Inaugural Season
In professional sports, fans of an expansion team understand that it takes a while for a team to grow into a competitive force.
The 1995 Panthers squad not only finished with a expectations-exceeding first-year record of 7-9, but also managed to secure a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions. The 49ers were not quite the juggernaut that they were in 1994, but they were still a team to be reckoned with. Thanks to two John Kasay field goals and a 96-yard interception return by Tim McKyer, the Panthers quelled the defending champs 13-7.
This was the last of a four-game winning streak for the Panthers, the first expansion team in NFL history to do so.
7. Cam Newton’s Rookie Season
In the wake of a particularly lousy 2010 campaign that yielded a 2-14 record, the 2011 Panthers were fronted by a new head coach – and a new quarterback. After Stanford sensation Andrew Luck elected not to enter the 2011 draft, the Panthers selected the talented-but-troubled Cam Newton out of Auburn with the first overall pick. While nobody questioned Newton’s big arm or elite athleticism, many wondered whether he could translate his skills to a pro-style offense.
Those questions were quickly put to rest.
In his first NFL start, Newton broke the rookie record for passing yards, previously set by Peyton Manning. The next week, he broke it again. Throughout the course of a 6-10 season, Newton was omnipresent on the highlight reel, whether it be through the air (21 touchdown passes) or on the ground (14 rushing touchdowns, including a memorable 49-yard score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Newton’s performance throughout the 2011 season earned him NFL Rookie of the Year honors as well as a Pro Bowl nod.
6. Panthers Take Out Defending Super Bowl Champs Cowboys In 1996 Playoffs
In their second season, the Panthers went from an average team to a Super Bowl contender. With a gritty, defensive-minded style that has become the team’s identity ever since, the Panthers suffered a heart-breaking loss in the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers (who would go on to win the Super Bowl that season).
The game that most Panthers fans remember fondly is the divisional round victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The class of the ’90s, the Cowboys were coming off of three championships in the last four years, and were favored over the Panthers. What happened in the game can best be summed up by Sports Illustrated’s recap of the game:
The Carolina Panthers not only beat the scandal-scarred Super Bowl champion Cowboys on offense, defense and special teams at Ericsson Stadium, but they also showed more poise. However, the most stunning thing about Carolina’s 26-17 win in this NFC divisional playoff game was that it wasn’t so stunning. Dallas’s run for a fourth Super Bowl victory in five years ended in part because of drug suspensions and injuries but mostly because the Panthers were the setter team. Running back Anthony Johnson carried Carolina in crunch time when Smith couldn’t carry Dallas. Panther Kerry Collins was a better quarterback than Troy Aikman, who threw interceptions to kill the Cowboys’ last two drives. With a complex blitz package and a secondary that played tighter coverage than Dallas ever anticipated, the Carolina defense frustrated the Cowboys for the better part of 60 minutes.
5. Jake Delhomme’s Emergence
In the 2003 season opener, the Panthers trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-0 at halftime. Coach John Fox decided to turn the keys over to a relative unknown. A career backup, Delhomme shocked the Jaguars and the NFL with three touchdown passes in the second half that ultimately led to a come-from-behind victory over the Jags. Throughout that season, Delhomme and the Panthers would pull off eight game-winning drives, earning them the nickname “The Cardiac Cats.” Delhomme went on to have a number of successful seasons as the Panthers starting quarterback before being released in 2010. Delhomme still holds many of the Panthers quarterback records, including comeback victories (17), yards (19,258), and touchdowns (120).
4. John Fox Hired
After legendary head coach George Seifert’s relatively lame-duck run in Carolina, Jerry Richardson brought in New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox for the job. In his first year the Panthers bounced back from a disastrous 1-15 season to finish a respectable 7-9. The next year they would hit the Super Bowl. Fox’s Panthers teams were not met without criticism from fans (none of Fox’s teams ever had back-to-back playoff appearances, and his conservative playcalling ultimately led to owner Jerry Richardson electing not to renew his contract), but with a Super Bowl appearance as well as an NFC Championship run in 2005 under his belt, it is indisputable that Fox reinstated a winning culture in Carolina. For that reason he is considered the greatest coach in the team’s history.
3. The Unraveling Of Jake Delhomme Against The Cardinals
The Panthers were considered a lock to beat the Cardinals in the 2008 playoffs. With years of mediocrity and a reputation as a soft team plaguing the Cardinals, there was little doubt that the more-experienced Panthers would roll on Arizona at home.
What transpired in the game not only upset Panthers nation, but set in motion years of ineptitude for Carolina.
Delhomme had the worst performance of his career that evening – five interceptions, one fumble. The Panthers would be dominated by Arizona, 33-13.
In a move that seems unfathomable now, that offseason the Panthers signed Delhomme to a five-year extension worth $42.5 million. In the 2009 season opener, Delhomme was horrible again, going 7-for-17 with 73 yard, four interceptions and a fumble. He would finish the season with 8 touchdowns and 18 interceptions before being released by the Panthers. Delhomme – and the franchise – haven’t been the same since.
2. Cardiac Cats Wow In Double Overtime in 2003 Playoffs
Considered by many to be one of the most exciting games of the modern era, the Panthers beat the St. Louis Rams on the road.
After blowing an 11-point lead in regulation, the Panthers had a winning field goal in overtime called back after a penalty for delay of game. Kasay would miss the ensuing 45-yarder. A later Rams drive was stopped when a pass intended for Torry Holt was wrestled away by Ricky Manning Jr.
Then it happened: on the first snap of the second overtime, Delhomme threw a beautiful pass to Steve Smith, who ran 69 yards for the game-winning touchdown that would catapult Carolina to the NFC Championship game. It stands as arguably the greatest play in Panthers history. Click the video above to relive the moment.
1. Panthers Make The Super Bowl
Hailed by Sports Illustrated writer Peter King as “the greatest Super Bowl of all time,” Super Bowl XXXVIII was a game for the ages. A defensive struggle through the first half that exploded as an offensive assault by both squads in the second, this game came down to the last ticks of the clock.
Both Delhomme and Tom Brady threw for over 300 yards, the first pair of quarterbacks to do so since Dan Marino and Joe Montana in Super Bowl XIX. Panthers great Muhsin Muhammad ended up with four passes for 140 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown grab. Steve Smith ended with 112 all-purpose yards. Receiver Ricky Proehl ended the game with four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, joining Jerry Rice as the second player to score touchdowns with two different teams in a Super Bowl.
Delhomme saved the greatest performance of his career for the brightest lights. He was masterful in the Panthers closing drives, staying cool under pressure and leading the team to scoring drives. Delhomme threw a pass to Proehl for a score with 1:08 left in regulation. Kasay would kick the tying extra point to make it 29-29. It seemed the first overtime in Super Bowl history was all but inevitable.
The next play is seared in every Panthers fan’s memory. The ever-reliable Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff, giving New England the ball on their own 40-yard line. Brady led the Patriots down the field with ease, and kicker Adam Vinatieri sent the ball through the uprights with four seconds left in regulation to seal the victory.
It is the most bittersweet moment in Panthers history. The agony of a last-second defeat coupled with the most successful season in the franchise’s relatively short timeline.
Ultimately, it was a season of overcoming the odds – a 1-15 squad, a new head coach, a journeyman quarterback, an elite defense, a grind-it-out offense and enough games that came down to the wire to make any fan’s head spin. Nobody would have picked the Panthers to make it to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. They stood face-to-face with the most dominant team of the ’00s and nearly beat them. The 2003 Panthers season goes to show that greatness isn’t measured merely by the end result, but in the hearts of players who dared to be great.